There are probably a million little factors that contribute to the growth of any youth ministry ranging from the unilateral work of God to the kind of experience that is found when attending a program to the level of relational authenticity. Some youth ministries grow by sheer force of personality and charisma and some by default according to the size of the larger church. There are any number of reasons why a youth ministry will grow.
I’m not entirely sure why our youth ministry has grown the way it has. I pray that it’s by the amazing work of the Spirit. But then I remind myself that God’s Spirit is present just the same in thousands of other churches…so…why don’t they all grow the same then? I’m a nice guy but I don’t think I’m particularly charismatic or magnetic in my personality…in fact while I may be able to function very well as an extrovert I can also be quite the introvert at times. I strive to be creative in my biblical teaching but I’m not sure that our lessons and messages are always the most relevant.
However, as I reflect on the last few years, I think I can identify a few core commitments that have at least helped contribute to the possibility of growth. These commitments are over and above the usual commitments we all share in youth ministry such as build relationships with students and use thoroughly biblical teaching.
Another thought before I get into these commitments: I am convinced that God has spiritually wired every church and ministry to innately want to grow. But that growth will not happen unless we, the pastors and leaders, allow it to grow by changing how we operate. If we don’t change, it won’t grow.
Simplify the Calendar
When our group was smaller, it was great to have different events, trips, and activities that fostered community but as we’ve grown, I’ve had to remove them from our calendar so that I could stay focused on Sundays and Wednesdays and do them well. After all, that’s where I really want the kids to be. Now, our small groups will do their own trips and activities like game nights, sleepovers, etc. They love it and I don’t plan any of it!
Another aspect of this principle is to simplify the family calendar. Early on in my time at this church, we decided to pull the high school youth group off of Sunday nights and back onto Wednesday nights. We still kept middle school and high school separate by having the high school group meet after the middle school group. This was greatly helpful for families and they really appreciated having church on just one night a week but it just wasn’t enough. We still weren’t meeting our potential attendance. So…we remodeled the church garage into a youth room for the high schoolers and ran them simultaneously. Now all ages of the family (adults too) have opportunities at the exact same time on both Sundays and Wednesdays. The simplified family calendar has been a huge help in boosting our attendance.
Focus on Retention
I’ve always been in the habit of sharing the gospel as often as I can with the kids that I have. However, I’ve rarely put much energy into evangelistic events and activities. We’ve had events here in Bemidji with the likes of Reggie Dabbs, as well as with Nick Hall of Pulse (with Newsboys & Needtobreathe). But I have to say that our most effective means of growth has been to focus our energy on keeping the kids who show up rather than trying to get the kids who aren’t there. We make sure every student is greeted upon entry, and greeted by an adult within the first 10 minutes of the program. We send cards to those who are missing. We messages via text, Facebook, Twitter, etc.
In my younger days and in our smaller days, I had a lot of care contact with students. I knew when they were breaking up with their boyfriend/girlfriend. I knew when they had big tests coming up. I knew when they were having fights with their parents. But, in order allow our ministry to grow I had to release this kind of care into the hands of small group leaders. I had to let them be the “youth pastor” in these kids’ lives.
This can be tough to do because I want control over how it turns out. But if it’s all me, the no one else will have any vested interest in the ministry’s success. I have to bring others along with me. I have to listen to them. Let them into my head. Let them in on the decision making. Let their ideas and giftedness come out in the results, as well. In the end, I’ll need those leaders to be able to take on significant responsibility that I can no longer handle. If I haven’t developed those leaders, then the ministry will not grow and I will be to blame…not them.
Share the Gospel Often
I am firmly convinced that I need to be constantly looking for opportunities to share the gospel with kids. You can read more about this here>…
Know the Numbers
One phrase I hear soooo often that I really disagree with is: “It’s not about the numbers.” It’s totally about the numbers. Every number represents a person. Each number represents a life that needs Jesus, needs to grow in Jesus, or is ready to serve the mission of Jesus. We should be constantly striving to reach “more” kids with the gospel, discipling “more” kids to live in the way of Jesus, and “equipping” more kids to contribute to the work of the Kingdom according to their giftedness.
The numbers matter so that we can maintain certain ratios and percentages that serve as indicators of health (not determiners…indicators) and pointers for direction. These ratios are:
1:5 = adult volunteer (ministry staff and program staff) to students in our program
1:6-10 = adult small group leader to students in group
1:~50 = ministry lead to students in major age group
1:100 = full-time equivalent staff to students attending (staffing toward growth rather than reacting to growth is preferred)
1:$100 = goal per student program budget (This is based on number of active students in our ministry. Unfortunately, that’s not a reality in our low budget context so we supplement with some fundraising projects. This ratio excludes staff expenses and major facility expenses.)
20% of Sunday Attendance = I’ve always been committed to seeing the number of active students in our ministry be 20% of our total Sunday church attendance. Some people have said that you’re a healthy youth ministry if you have 10%. I can see that as typical percentage but I wonder if that should be higher to be considered “healthy.” Currently, we’re at ~37%.
We keep close attendance of all our groups & classes, asking each small group leader and teacher to submit their attendance. We track attendance in an Excel spreadsheet. Our program director (or a volunteer) enters the data each Wednesday for 45 minutes after youth group. We clearly communicate two primary numbers to the congregation and church leadership: 1) average weekly program attendance, 2) total active students (all individuals attending at least once/month or new students several weeks in a row plus any student who is a natural child of the church). A third number we sometimes point out is our total span of care which includes additional students on the roster who could show up at any time and for whom we would seek to provide crisis response when needed. By communicating these numbers, we celebrate growth and point out decline (along with reasons and solutions).
Be Creative with Teaching
I love to use mnemonics! 4 words that start with C. The first letter of each word in a sentence or series of points that form an acronym. A 3 line limerick that’s easy to recite. They’re all great. As long as I don’t force the passage out of context or make it too corny, mnemonics are all good. I also love using visual metaphors and being creative with the room or stage design. Even using photoshop or services like Gracewaymedia.com for graphics are helpful. We show a lot of short “mini-movies” on different topics to serve as lesson hooks, discussion starters, illustrations, etc. We find most of ours at Worship House Media. I also really like to use lesson enforcing hands on activities in small groups or little games during large group. Unfortunately, these are much more difficult to put together and orchestrate…especially for large numbers of students. That’s probably why you don’t see this kind of thing much in large youth groups.
Be Developmentally Relevant
It has created a lot more work…that much more coordination…that much more curriculum development. But, splitting the group according to age appropriate content has been a high priority for us and it’s been very successful. Our programs on both Sundays and Wednesdays are age-graded.
Sundays is smaller, educational groups by grade.
6th Grade = Covenant Catechism (“Rock Solid“)
7th Grade = “Christ“(a year in the life and teachings of Jesus)
8th Grade = Old Testament (1st year Confirmation using “The Journey: OT“)
9th Grade = New Testament & Mentor relationships (2nd year Confirmation using “The Journey: NT & Beyond“)
10th Grade + = C.A.D.R.E. (knowing and defending your faith using Norman Geisler’s “Living Loud“)
Wednesdays (we call it FUEL) we start with a large group worship experience then split the kids into 3 youth groups for their lessons/messages (FUEL 3G) for about 20-30 minutes. Then they all split into small groups for more discussion. Our topics for each group tend to be according to the following age appropriate themes (of course, there are a number of topics/themes that are appropriate for each age group).
MS (6th-8th) = Questions & Curiosities (we use a combination of Sparkhouse’s re:Form and Orange’s XP3 for MS)
JV (9th-10th) = Rules, Rights, and Relationships (we use Orange’s XP3)
VS (11th-12th) = Truth, Trust, and Transitions (we use a combination of Kara Powell’s “Sticky Faith“, Orange’s XP3 Next, Orange’s XP3 College, and guest speakers)
Use Thorough Communication
Communication has always been of high value to me. Communicating to as many people possible with as much information as possible as far in advance as possible. This has always required a lot of advance planning, usually through spring and early summer for the next entire school year. Of course, we have to allow for a lot of flexibility as needed but we try not to change the calendar if we can help it.
We plan and send out our Calendar of events for the entire school year (parents love it!).
We plan out our Curriculum for the entire school year (super helpful for lay teachers and for those really busy seasons so that quality of lessons doesn’t decrease too much).
We inform our small group leaders of each week’s topics typically one week in advance using private Facebook groups and the scheduling tool.
We also send out Parent CUE’s (that’s what Orange calls them) every 3-4 weeks informing parents of the topics coming ahead so they can be having conversations at home.
In conjunction with this our Family Life Pastor writes a weekly blog sometimes interacting with the week’s curriculum from a parent’s perspective to further assist implementation at home.
We send out a Newsletter celebrating stories and informing of upcoming events about every 6 weeks.
We send home Announcement Cards with each student each week.
We use our weekly Sunday bulletin.
We make frequent posts on our Facebook Page.
I use a group text app on my phone.
We create informational videos that get posted in our Facebook groups.
And, we use One Call Now for emergency messages.
Build Trust with Parents
There are generally three ways to grow a youth ministry:
1) Conversion growth mostly by kids inviting friends
2) Retention growth by graduating kids up through the grades
3) Transfer growth by new Christian families coming into your church
The first two ways are the most ideal. The third way is less ideal if they’re coming from another church in your community but, nonetheless, a positive reality if the transfer is healthy. I say positive because it’s great to have an increase of more spiritually stable Christians alongside of an increase of new Christians. I think in order to allow growth to happen in the second and third ways, we as youth pastors have to work very hard at building trust with parents.
Building trust with parents requires casual and intentional conversations in the church halls, on the phone, at sporting events, and choir concerts, etc. It also requires a constant stream of information and communications about your ministry and their students. Furthermore, it requires reciprocal communication, as well. That means hearing from parents what they’re needs, ideas, and requests are. I hear a lot of conversation in youth ministry circles about how parents can be such a problem…I think that’s bogus! Parent’s aren’t a problem. They’re partners! We should both be working together to help these young men and women we love so much along in their journey with Jesus. That partnership starts by changing our attitudes about parents and continues by constantly building trust with them.